Our five weeks in Amerrica were, as expected, a blur. Despite how short if a trip it was, all four of us were so grateful to for the opportunity to spend some time with our loved ones in America – especially the many delighted and delightful grandparents. _Izayla and Elian especially enjoyed our visits to parks and kid-friends’ houses with toys, and being able to pet friendly dogs on leashes. Izayla got quite good at asking “Can I pet your dog, please?” and now that we are back home in Bangkok she is still struggling to figure out the less defined rules about which street dogs or kept dogs are ok to touch and when, and instead states with hopeful assurance that any particular dog she is excited to pet will “No gat” (a classic Izayla mixed English -Thai sentence, meaning, “this dog won’t bite me…I am sure of it.”
Our five weeks in Amerrica were, as expected, a blur. Despite how short if a trip it was, all four of us were so grateful to for the opportunity to spend some time with our loved ones in America – especially the many delighted and delightful grandparents. Izayla and Elian especially enjoyed our visits to parks and kid-friends’ houses with toys, and being able to pet friendly dogs on leashes. Izayla got quite good at asking “Can I pet your dog, please?” and now that we are back home in Bangkok she is still struggling to figure out the less defined rules about which street dogs or kept dogs are ok to touch and when, and instead states with hopeful assurance that any particular dog she is excited to pet will “No gat” (a classic Izayla mixed English -Thai sentence, meaning, “this dog won’t bite me…I am sure of it.”
Iven and our new teammate Matthijs were talking with a Burmese man sitting on the sidewalk, whiskey bottle in hand. He told them he was Muslim and Iven responded with a bit more provocativeness than we often exhibit, “Drinking is a sin in Islamic law – what do you think about that?” The man took a long, sad look at his bottle and then at Iven and answered, “Yeah, I know. I don’t know what to do about my sins.” The pair shared with him about how Jesus offers freedom from sin, and a pathway for a new life. Soon the man put down his bottle and asked if he could join them as they passed out food boxes to more hungry neighbors. The Burmese man led them along and was the first to proclaim “Did you know Jesus can forgive our sins? We don’t need to be stuck!” to each group they met. Now to be honest- this man didn’t actually seem all that interested in receiving forgiveness into his own life just quite yet, but we do love how people can join in the work of the kingdom – in this case sharing food and proclamation – even if they are only at the beginning of their own journey.
We approached a woman sitting on the sidewalk who seemed to be trying to hide herself under her umbrella. She hesitated a little and then responded, “I am writing about my life. I have sold my body for many years now and in the beginning I made good money – now I have almost no customers and sometimes get offered as little as 100 baht ($3). Everyone in my family is gone and I live alone. I am so sad, I cry all the time and sometimes just want to die. I have nothing left to do but write.” This is just one woman’s story, from one conversation we had this week. We had never met her before and though we are working to set her up with another organization that can help provide some job training and get her another form of income, there is no guarantee we will ever actually see her again. This is the reality of our neighborhood. We spent time listening to her story, asking questions, bought her some food since she said she had not eaten that day and had only 5 baht (about 20 cents), shared with her about how there is a God who knows all of her story and sadness and cries with her, and prayed for her. We gave her our numbers and talked about how we could find her again – her response was, “I think maybe that if you are able to help, God will bring you back across my path.” A week later we bumped into her again – this time while trying to do “church” with a few of our neighbors who “used to be” Christian. She readily joined in praying out loud to Jesus – and revealed to us that she had grown up in a Catholic School. A few days after that we got to spend the morning with her visiting some different social service and job retraining options. She wasn’t very excited about any of the places that we visited together – but we will continue praying that God opens up a new door for this new friend.
Picture this: Iven – White, early-30s, from the American west coast, child of liberal upper-middle class parents… Khan – Cambodian-American, mid-20s, rough background with the tattoos to fit the part… Steven – Middle-aged, successful Hong Kong-Australian business-man… This unlikely trio was one of about 20 groups that hit our streets on Sunday morning, giving out food, praying for people and extending care and a listening ear to our neighbors. “Service Sunday” is an annual event in the life of ECB (Evangelical Church of Bangkok), where normal Sunday morning worship services are replaced with acts of intentional service-as-worship of all kinds spanning across the city. Rak Teh and our neighborhood have been part of this project since it began three years ago.
The 80 people that joined us on Sunday make up 10% – essentially a tithe – of the fairly large, international congregation. It was such a joy for us to participate in and help facilitate the morning, welcoming people from many nations and backgrounds to join together in serving our neighbors! The most poignant moment of the morning was hearing back from one team made up of 6 friends from 5 nations (several of whom are a part of our local Life Group) who after sharing food with a group of homeless neighbors and listening to one woman’s hard story, initiated washing her feet right there on the side of the road with a washcloth and water bottle. Their kindness brought tears to her eyes.
Another group talked and eventually prayed with a transgendered person involved in prostitution. It was clearly meaningful for this neighbor to receive prayer, and especially to have one of the ECB volunteers so readily hold their hands. It is always such a gift when others come alongside and get to experience with us what a privilege we have to be involved in the lives of our neighbors and to see little glimpses of what God is doing in their lives. Thank you ECB!!
In May we partnered with Issarachon and the Queen Sirikit Center for Breast Cancer based out of the Chulalongkorn Hospital to help open the door for women from the neighborhood connect with a health project targeting disadvantaged women providing free cancer screening and follow-up medical care. It was a two-part process where the first day women from the neighborhood came together for some fun and informative teaching about cancer and health. Then, two-weeks later 35 of our neighbors boarded a bus to “Bpy Thiaw” or go on a trip to a world-class breast and cervical cancer screening facility in down-town Bangkok.
This is the third year in a row that we have helped facilitate Inter Varsity’s Global Urban Trek Asia summer teams Bangkok red-light district prayer walk. It is just one night during a long week of preparation and team building activities for the 80-or-so college students that will spend their summer living with national families in an Asian slum, discerning whether God may have a long-term call on their lives to work with people in poverty. Our part is to give some teaching, break some stereotypes, and help students to spiritually prepare for on-site prayer in one of the several red-light districts of Bangkok. Our heart and hope is that these students are able to catch a bit of God’s heart of love and embrace for the women and men who work in those areas, whether they be selling services themselves, managing establishments where sex is sold, or coming as customers. This year, we felt led to take one of the teams to an area in the northern part of Bangkok that has a collection of karaoke and strip clubs, but caters only to Thai clients. As far as we know, there is no current Christian response in that neighborhood, and though it is less obviously flashy and loud than the neighborhood catering to foreigners, there is no shortage of heartache and darkness. We ourselves have only been to that neighborhood a handful of times, and then only years ago while we were first getting our bearings and surveying areas where men worked, so we knew we needed to visit and get a sense of the scene before taking a group of a dozen or more students with us. We had childcare arranged for the time we would be with the students, but we decided it was simplest to go ahead and bring our tired kids with us for our initial exploring. It wasn’t very late – maybe 8 pm or so – and the bars and clubs were just beginning to think about opening. We slowly walked the street with our stroller, asking God to open our eyes and hearts, and help us to ask the right questions of the doormen and women who were trickling in for their shifts. A couple of especially friendly doormen were delighted with our kids and unhelpfully held the front door open as Izayla ran towards it. She quickly slipped into the darkness of loud club music. Iven and I looked at each other, unsure of what to do next – “You need to follow her,” he said to me. We are both committed to protecting his eyes from any unnecessary female nudity. So, I trudged after my toddler and was quickly also swallowed up by darkness and dance music. My eyes adjusted and I looked around to find less than a half dozen people inside, all workers, and my little lady just a bit in front of me jumping up and down and laughing to the music. I looked past her and saw one women on stage practicing a pole dance, in something like a bikini. Izayla suddenly saw her and stopped dancing, watching her closely she turned to me and declared in a way only a two-year-old could, “No clothes on…dancing…that’s fun!” And it hit me. Here I am, in a strip club, with my two-year-old, and she has just observed what is happening and categorized it as “fun”. Hmmm. What to do now. This is one of those moments, as a missionary mom, when I wonder if we are foolish and wrong to let our kids slip in to scenes like this, or if it is indeed good to let them have little doses of reality and be able to have the conversations about what is actually fun, and what just seems like fun, and more importantly what is good and not good, healthy and honoring, and not. She is just barely two. We can’t really have those conversations with her yet. And though we are not eager to bring her into strip clubs and brothels, it is a reality of our life and of the world, and our kids are just simply going to have to deal with those realities at an earlier age than most kids (coming from America, at least). My hope and prayer is that as they are exposed, they will also see the very real consequences of sin and broken relationships in the lives of our neighbors. They won’t just taste alcohol as teenagers, they will see countless neighbors passed out drunk all throughout their childhood, and see friends and “uncles” wasting away, literally, from the poison of whiskey as their primary food. They won’t just hear about people having “unwanted pregnancies”, they will see the many swollen bellies of women who are working our streets, and see the hardships of those children as they are raised in contexts that simply don’t have the emotional and physical resources to provide for secure childhoods. I don’t think God sees the woman dancing on the stage and calls it “fun”, as our little daughter does, but I do know that He sees that woman and calls HER “precious!” without any of the baggage and judgments that we grown-ups have a hard time letting go of. That is one thing our little ones are great at. In that sense, they do see like God does, and at least that can be called “very good”.